OP-EDS

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February 28, 2003

Community by other means

Chicago's fourth, fifth and 20th wards encompass the University of Chicago, and the three re-elected aldermen--Toni Preckwinkle, Leslie Hairston and Arenda Troutman--will be determining how Hyde Park looks and works over the next four years. George Bush, Rod Blagojevich and Richard Daley all figure into the political world that structures our neighborhood, but these three aldermen are the only ones focused specifically on where we live.

Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, student interest seems to run opposite to the order of influence these factors have on Hyde Park. Precincts around the University reported turnouts of registered voters around 15 to 30 percent. It may be more disappointing that the fourth-ward precinct that includes the University community has only 364 registered voters; the fifth ward has 600 in our precinct.

Registering to vote in Illinois means ceding one's right to vote in another state, and students from elsewhere can be excused if they choose to maintain that eligibility. We question, though, whether low eligibility and turnout numbers are due to loyalty and not an apathy endemic to the University.

Hyde Park and the University of Chicago have wretched town-gown relations, if a lack of relationship can be defined as such, and the University has a spotty track record with encouraging student interest in the neighborhood. Experience Chicago days, community service events, and other efforts to get students out of their dorms typically have more to do with other places to go in Chicago and when and how it's safe to get out of Hyde Park to go there. To paraphrase Principal Skinner from The Simpsons, it seems as if we've come to Hyde Park only to get directions to get away from here. The University's "Chicago Life" Web site trumpets that Hyde Park is "among the most successful racially and economically integrated urban communities in the United States," then focuses almost exclusively on University-based attractions as things to do.

Conventional wisdom tells us that students who are involved in the community will be more likely to vote. It may be, however, that students can first become involved in the community through encouragement to vote. But voting drives for the most recent city elections were either non-existent or unpublicized. Aldermanic candidates had no profile on campus.

Such a situation is detrimental to both candidates and their potential voters. Those who run for alderman in Hyde Park have an untapped wealth of legal voters in University students, and the University--assuming it wants to immerse students in the community in which they live--missed an invaluable opportunity to involve students in Chicago politics by creating forums to introduce candidates to students. The University is conscientious about ensuring that University administrators have opportunities to talk with students, as evidenced by the quarterly brown-bags with Don Randel and Steve Klass; such a idea could be equally successful in acquainting city council members with their constituents in the school but are non-existent.

There's a subtle culture of fear when it comes to student relations with Hyde Park, so the lack of turnout is understandable. However, that does not make it excusable. Both the community and the University would benefit from increased interaction. We hope that a desire exists on both sides to act on this interest.